In a Myopic World limited to seeing only the Binary form of Gender, Deen reflects the magnificence of human diversity. He helps us admire the beauty of human diversity that exists in its myriad forms. Biologists have long accepted and proved the gender diversity in animal and plant life and even though some of us know Gender is not a binary but rather a sky filled with all colors of the rainbow and anything in between, nothing comes striking as Deen. Deen is an up and coming artist who reflects this in the theatre form. Of little importance for us is to know him as a Trans man; Of greater importance is for us to admire his courage, strength and the great artist he is with his portrayal about himself. In this performance, Deen brings into picture the emotions, struggles, and the psyche of the human mind as it goes through the struggles of accepting oneself truly and how he fought the internalisation of the prejudices cast on his mind by the society’s and hence by his loved ones. He also delves into the extra layer of living in a cross cultural world and having to cope up with accepting and understanding the influence of the two cultures he has been exposed to.
What emotions did you go through when you realised you were male? Was it a gradual process or was it a sudden revelation?
I can look back now and see that it was a gradual process that took me well over ten years. I fought it every step of the way. I had (and probably still do have) a prejudice against straight men — I’ve known just too many women who have been raped, molested, assaulted — and I never wanted to be one of those guys. It took me a long time — and a very special transgender man in India — to show me that I could be a gentle guy. The ten year journey to that revelation, though, was filled with deep self-loathing, denial, anger, fear — so much fear — and also great love.
What was the nature of your coming out to your family? Can you describe what you went through and how they dealt with it?
I had to come out twice., I was 19 years old when I came out first as a bisexual back in 1994; (his was a long time ago, before I realized gender was not a binary and began to identify as queer. There’s something about south Asian parents, that makes the whole process so hard. You finally get up the courage to tell them, and then they pretend they didn’t hear it and you have to do it again (and again and again). But what always upset my mom the most was my gender — I was very butch, and after ten years she was still devastated about my short hair.
I spent a year in a hospital, many years in therapy, and I think the hardest part of that was knowing I was a profound disappointment to my parents. It seemed like I just hurt the people I loved most, and not by anything I did, but just because of who I was.
The second time I came out, I was 30 years old and I wanted to tell them I was transgender. My mom was so afraid to hear what I had to say, she told me not to tell her. I had to write them a letter. Even so, when the hormones kicked in, they seemed very surprised and were confused and upset, and probably a little horrified. My dad tried to smooth things out, but it would be two years before my mom would be ready to see me again. During that time, I wrote a lot of letters. I think both my parents and myself were hurting during this time. I tried to keep the channels open and say “I love you” a lot, through emails, letters and the few phone calls we shared. And then after two years, my parents invited me and my partner for Thanksgiving — a trial run! — and it was clear something had changed. Or that love had won.
Dealing with the younger generation of my family has been more difficult. My brother and cousins had an easier time with me having a girlfriend, but a very difficult time with my transition. Oddly, after all these years and all the drama, I am closer to my parents than to anyone else in my family.
How did the cross cultural factor affect you? An American born Indian raised by Indian parents in the US, with a trans layer on top. That could not have been easy!
I have always felt somewhere between the two cultures and being too Indian for my friends, and too American for my parents, My parents believe in obligation and the face you present to society… shame is a huge deal and very real thing. But America is about the individual. I come down in the middle, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say i am so far past American individualism that I am actually coming full circle and approaching “the good of the whole” from the other side:
I believe in living with honesty, in living the truth as best as you can fathom it. And this helps the whole. Freedom, not at the expense of others, but in order to free others. I have no doubt that my parents would see this view as naive.
When you say you struggled with being a transman – Do you struggle personally with your identity of being transgendered, or is it a case of struggling to match the stereotypes of a society that sees gender in only binary form?
All of it. the journey was a struggle — I didn’t want to sell out, I didn’t want anyone to think that it wasn’t okay to be butch (I still feel butch inside), and I didn’t want to be a “man.”As a butch, people made assumptions about me and that was easier in many ways — I didn’t have to constantly out myself. Now, as a transman, I feel suffocated by the straight world’s assumptions of what a man is supposed to be. I think I “gay it up” sometimes, without even meaning to. The binary is hideous. I’m constantly pushing against it. The truth is I’m both genders — physically, historically, and emotionally. But out in the world, people see a guy, and so as a guy I have privilege, and I try and use it to expand the possibilities of what is allowed.
There is also another struggle, though I hate to admit it. There is a part of me which, as much as I try and dismiss it, has (on some subconscious level) bought the mainstream belief that a man’s body is supposed to look like “this.” Even though I know I have an amazing, unique body with its own set of perks, at times I find myself thinking that my body is incomplete, or wondering why Elizabeth doesn’t want someone who has a “normal” body. I see the fault in that thinking, but it just goes to show how ingrained society’s messages can be.
How did you meet Liz and how does she deal with the struggles you go through?
We met doing theatre — we were cast in the same play, about five years before I transitioned. We’re hopelessly in love with each other.
The transition wasn’t easy for her (and really, she could tell you in better words than I can) but it was never a question of whether she loved me or not, or if she wanted to be with me. That’s what she says — but I was still terrified that she would leave me, because I didn’t know any couples who had survived the transition of one partner. But one of the things that stands out to me most is that I took away her visibility as a queer woman. When she could use female pronouns for me, she could out herself easily just by talking about us. But once I switched to male pronouns, in some ways she was thrust into the closet against her will (she’s a beautiful femme). It was tough for her to find ways to assert her own identity when the rest of the world perceived her as straight. Luckily, neither of us identified as “lesbian” — we’re both queer.
She has been — and continues to be — amazing. She went to a transpartners group in NYC when I was first transitioning, and then when she was in DC for a few years, she became a peer counsellor of other transpartners. She is a trans advocate and champion. She created pack of articles to read and sent it to both our families.
How has your family reacted to ‘Draw The Circle’?
My family hasn’t seen it. it’s still a work-in-progress and they’re aware that I’m writing and performing a story about my transition, but my parents have told me they’re proud that I’m working so hard on something, but they don’t think they can come see it. I love my parents dearly and for them to say that much — you just can’t understand how far they’ve come. My brother wants to be supportive and come, but is nervous about what it will be like to see me present such an autobiographical piece which covers a span of history that he was a part of.
On the other side, my in-laws travelled all the way from West Virginia to NYC to see the reading I did when I first presented it at the public theatre in April. It really meant a lot to me that they did that. After watching the play my mother-in-law could really see how hard it must have been for my mother to go through her own journey around my transition.
What advice would you give to people struggling with their identity/sexuality?
Be honest with yourself. Be patient with yourself. I couldn’t have transitioned 10 years ago — I needed the time to understand, to live certain things, before I could move to the next revelation life had to offer. It’s not easy, but people will surprise you with the strength and tenacity of their love. And don’t underestimate the tenacity of your own love.
At some point I realized, my mom loves me and she can’t not love me, no matter how hard she tries. I love my parents, and I can’t not love them, no matter how much I try to convince myself that I don’t care. So I said, you can be mad at me, you can hate me, you can wish I were different, you can feel anything you want to feel — but I still love you. It’s the strongest, most gentle weapon we have.
For trans folks, we can see the struggles we went through as we watch Deen. For accepting folks, he displays the ultimate character of strength of a human mind – “total honesty and accepting of oneself” and hope we will one day achieve that, if not already. For the skeptics, we can always watch this to understand what it is to be conflicted and hope some fine day we can achieve the same degree of self acceptance that Deen has accomplished.